Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Great Mystery As Teacher XI: Affirming Our Limitations

Scott Bradley

Immediately after their bonding in friendship one of three friends drops dead. Hearing of this 'Confucius' sends a disciple to attend the wake, but his representative is scandalized by what he finds. The surviving friends are strumming a zither and singing a silly song — far outside the bounds of the conventional proprieties that Confucius proclaims as fundamental to the nurture of righteousness. Yet, returning to his master, the disciple is surprised to hear that Confucius not only understands the freedom of these "freakish people" "who roam outside the lines", but also laments that he is not as they. Why does he not then follow their way? he asks. "I am a victim of Heaven," he replies. (6:48; Ziporyn)

"Heaven" is nature, the way things are. Some of us can understand quantum physics; some of us cannot. Some of us can run a four-minute mile; some of us cannot. Some of us have perfect pitch; some of us don't even know what pitch is. Some of us can experience this freedom from conventional norms; some of us must find our fulfillment within them.

Confucius here experiences his own freedom; he understands his own limitations and embraces them; in this there is freedom. All that transcendence requires is something to transcend. "Every enslavement is also an ennobling." (2:41) "This Tranquil Turmoil! It is what reaches completion only through its turmoil." (6:38)

Like Confucius, we might achieve a relatively clear understanding of the view from Dao, yet remain unable to realize it in practice. This is understandable. We are all, after all, victims of our own natures and the Daoist vision is in an important sense remedial; it assumes our inherent dyfunctionality, something we all share as human beings. And as with every specific dysfunction, our overcoming is rarely an elimination; it is an ongoing process of rising above, of coping. Confucius is very much like the overcoming alcoholic when he stands up and says, "I am in bondage to convention."

How can we not honor that? Were we not to do so, our bondage would be greater than his, for he, at least, is self-aware.

You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.

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